The Panamanian photographer on his inspiration for the Priti Baiks series, Donald Trump, and the Kuna Indian’s love for heavy metal.
By **Justin Alvarez**
To the young Panamanians documented in José Castrellón’s Priti Baiks project, their bicycles are not just their sole form of transportation but an extension of their personalities. Decked out with horns, ribbons, and even boomboxes, each subject differs significantly from one another; however, what links the series of photographs together is a profusion of hip-hop, Afro-Caribbean culture, and braggadocio. In the process, Castrellón captures not only the beautiful culture around him in his home country, but also a passion for individuality.
Guernica: How did the series Priti Baiks come about?
José Castrellón: Here in Panama, back in the ‘80s, there were a lot of kids who were shoeshiners. Limpiabotas is what we call them down here. They would grab 4-wheel skates—this was before in-line skates came out—and they would chop them off and make wooden scooters and decorate them. They don’t exist anymore, but they transitioned from scooters to bikes. They’re all “ghetto” boys—“projects boys,” you know. So I started to work in the projects, but it’s pretty difficult. I can’t just go in there with a camera because I’ll probably get shanked or something. [Laughs] But I got into it in 2008. I was coming back from the countryside, and I drove into this gas station. There were these two kids, Eric and Alejandro, who rolled in. You see a lot of these kids in the gas stations because they put air into the big horns on their bikes. I had my camera, and I photographed them there for the first time. It came out sloppy because I didn’t have a tripod, and there was barely any light. But after that, I decided I was going to go deeper into this stuff, so I started traveling to the countryside more often. When driving, I’d spot someone and I’d honk. I’d tell them about the project, and I’d show them other photographs I’d taken, since I shoot Polaroids as proof.
Guernica: To show you were legitimate.
José Castrellón: Exactly. That’s how I’ve been working on this series. Now I’m now trying to get into the projects in the city, and it’s not easy.
Guernica: Have you gotten access to the projects by talking to these kids?
José Castrellón: No, no. They’ve been chance encounters.
Guernica: You see them on the road and you stop.
José Castrellón: Exactly. Only one of them has ever said no. But at the beginning, I go without a camera. You know, I start hanging out with them. Like the big guy, Chimbilin, with the ghetto blaster—I met him in this place on the Caribbean side of Panama. It was summertime, and I wanted to go search for some bikes. So I drove around the city, and I went to this place, Carmeño, that I used to go to when I was twelve years old. There was a hacienda out there. That was last year, so it was my first time there in 15 years. I started asking around the town if they knew anyone who pimped bikes, and someone told me he could take me to this guy. So we started walking and entered a shantytown. I started getting a little sketched out and everything, but then I saw the bike. Huge fucking bike. And the guy, Chimbilin, he looked at me and said that he knew me. He asked if I used to come here as a kid, and it turned out he was the brother of the guy in charge of the stable horses at the hacienda. So we went to the park, and I bought a half a case of Hamm’s beer as a present and we drank and smoked cigarettes and I waited for it, you know. That’s one of my favorite shots.
Of all the indigenous people—from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego—they are the only ones that never kneeled to white man. Not even the Spaniards.
Guernica: The photos of the people who you connected with beforehand, did they turn out to be your favorite shots?
José Castrellón: I think those are the better ones, if I hang out with them.
Guernica: You get that intimacy.
José Castrellón: They get into it. It’s instant gratification when they see the Polaroid.
Guernica: The [Museo del Barrio] Bienal’s theme is the use of street culture as a transformation of change. How do you see your pictures within that theme?
José Castrellón: I think my work goes with street art because it’s so popular, you know, because it’s about Latin American culture. My point of view as a Latin American artist is Panama was a small appendix of the U.S. More or less like Puerto Rico. Americans were here in 1903 when we became independent from Colombia. The Americans were here for almost a century. So I think these kids fixing bikes is a mix between Afro-Caribbean and American black culture. Some of these people make even less than minimum wage. They spend all this money to deck out their bikes. You know, “I don’t have a fucking car, but I have a bike and I can fucking pimp it.”
Guernica: Panama is one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America, but it’s still a country full of contrasts, with over one-third of the population living in poverty—especially within its indigenous communities. How do you see these photographs in the context of these transformations, fueled by the expansion of the Panama Canal and a number of other mega-projects?
José Castrellón: The mega-projects—they’re bullshit. I hate them down here. We have an asshole of a president right now. He’s trying to mine in the national parks. It’d be like finding gold or copper in Yosemite or Yellowstone in the U.S.. We’re going to ruin the ecosystem. That’s one of the stupid things they’re doing. Also, Donald Trump is building here. I hate the motherfucker.
But about the indigenous groups, we have seven indigenous tribes. One of the powerful ones is the Kuna. They’re in the north shore of the Caribbean of Panama in the Kuna Yala reservation. Of all the indigenous people—from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego—the Kuna are the only ones that never kneeled to white man. Not even to the Spaniards. They live in a socialistic society. If you, me, or Donald Trump had ten million dollars and we went up to them and asked to build a resort, we couldn’t. No white man can buy land there.
I was born and raised in Panama, and in my whole life I have never seen a Kuna Indian begging for money. They all work. And they all speak Kuna, they all speak Spanish. Some of the big chiefs even speak Russian and English. They’re amazing people.
What I’m working on now is based on America’s influence on the Kuna. The project is called Kuna Metal. Like black metal and thrash metal. It’s amazing because they’re indigenous people from the Caribbean, you know. They eat fish from the conch shell, but they listen to metal music.
Ozzy Osborne came down here to play at the Convention Center, so I went with my assistant to photograph him. It was amazing, all the indigenous people wearing spikes, eyeliner, Megadeath and Black Sabbath t-shirts. A lot of them come into the city to work, packing groceries at supermarkets and McDonalds especially. A lot of them work between the reservation and the city. It’s insane, these native Panamanians listening to AC/DC or Poison.
Guernica: Is that series going to be portraits like Priti Baiks?
José Castrellón: They’re not going to be straight-up portraits, but what I’m trying to do is cover the spaces between the reservations and the city. What I want to portray is the context of where they live and what they do.
Priti Baiks is exhibited in The Street Files, El Museo del Barrio’s 6th Biennial, in New York City open now through January 8, 2012.
Copyright 2011 Justin Alvarez
Justin Alvarez is an editorial assistant at Guernica. Read more about him here.